Life’s Material:
An Interview with Lynne Sachs
By Chris Shields

The major online retrospective Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression runs from January 13–31 at Museum of the Moving Image, and will feature a first-run release of her latest, Film About a Father Who, from Cinema Guild. Read more info and order an all-series pass here.

Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who is a hybrid work—part documentary, part experimental cinematic essay. Deftly weaving together several media formats and 35 years of footage, Sachs’s richly textured new film reveals the life and secrets of her father, Ira Sachs, a charming and enigmatic outsider-businessman, as well as the family members who in various ways are attempting to understand him.

Throughout her career, Sachs’s work has brought together thoughts, feelings, and materials collected throughout her daily life, wherein filmmaking is a seemingly daily practice, and her latest is no exception. It features Sachs’s characteristically beautiful 16mm photography, home movies, and interviews (past and recent) in which generations come together to discuss just who and what connects them. Beyond a family portrait however, Sachs’s film is an interrogation of the cinematic medium itself and its formal possibilities for the intimate and autobiographical. It’s an exciting work that is both formally uncompromising and surprisingly inviting.

As the centerpiece of Museum of the Moving Image’s current retrospective, “Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression,” Film About a Father Who represents the culmination of years of her experimentation and exploration in the DIY film underground. Sachs’s career represents a balancing act between ideas and experiences, the personal and the formal, and the intellectual and the heartfelt. For Sachs, whose art is finding the profoundly human in the space between her life and her materials, the classic Lou Reed lyric that provides the title for her current retrospective rings true: “Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime.”

Reverse Shot: Film About a Father Who feels like—I don't want to say conventional because it's certainly not—it’s in a more accessible documentary format than the more experimental essay films you’re known for. Was this a conscious decision?

Lynne Sachs: I like that you used the word accessible, because actually my mother told me the same thing. I think it kind of touches on that word accessible—some people use it in a disparaging way and some people use it in a way to say, you know, that you can have an entry point to it. And I think part of that entry point maybe has to do with [how] we're all trying to contend with the imprint of our own families on us, and how we will then come to a certain point. Maybe you come to that point at 18, or maybe you come to that point at 65 or whatever. It's a point where you sort of say, I am who I am, but I see myself in my family, and I also separate myself. It's like a Lacanian moment or psychoanalytic. So I think accessibility maybe had to do with that, that kind of prototype of family, and you just grappling with where you fit, where you can find an entry.

RS: Was there a moment where you realized the film could have a wider audience?

LS: Film About a Father Who was not only invited to screen at Slamdance, it was their opening night film. And I had this great conversation with one of the founders and directors of the festival, Paul Rachman, who said, “I know you've been in this niche world for a long time, but I think you can cross over.” I had a doubt about that, but I’ve always had a foot in the experimental world and one in the documentary world, but never strictly in one or the other. I would probably identify more with the experimental world than with the straight-ahead documentary. But I like the part about documentaries that allows you to work with all these different kinds of people and ask questions and be nosy and work with these complicated ideas around how society works.

RS: There is an approachability, yet it still fits so well with the rest of your work.

LS: The other side to it that maybe is more similar to my other previous work is that when I was working on it, I actually cut it as twelve little experimental films with Rebecca Shapass, my editor. My goal was to have a single film, but I didn't want to structure it in a chronological order. So to work my way against that, against that obvious time passing, I just had to edit based on different themes or relationships between things or certain shots that I thought had this kind of resonance. Then I would build around it. And each of those shorter films began to have a beginning and an end. And then I spent another year with Rebecca, and we broke apart all those films and wove them together. So in that way it was similar to my process in that I often begin in the middle of a film and have to go searching for the start and the finish, which is very different from how you would organize a narrative film per se, where you would know where you’re going.

RS: Speaking of your work with Rebecca, the editing is tremendous. Once you started to work together, how did you know it was the time after collecting footage over so many years to complete the film and release it?

LS: She had never edited a film of that—let's call it magnitude. And she really thinks of herself as an artist, not an editor. And so this was an experience that she could dive into. And so we would sit there together. And the reason I knew that I could work with her and that it was the right time was that I never felt that she was judgmental.

RS: And why did you feel that was important?

LS: Because I needed a way to both edit and distance myself from it. And so things I might get self-conscious about or question, Rebecca provided a sort of objectivity. At the same time she’s an artist and brings that perspective as well

RS: Were there revelations as you went through the footage in preparation for the film?

LS: Yes, things that seemed peripheral became very central, like the image that I actually decided to bring back three times of the children playing in the water. The first time I looked at that material, I thought, oh, it’s very degraded, I can’t use this. The second time I thought, hey, this looks like an impressionist painting. And then the third time I said, “This is actually the center of the whole film,” because we have my father’s point of view on his children, which is very loving. We were able to see his world as a dad and that we needed to have access to his psyche and that license.

RS: How was your interview process with your father?

LS: He wasn't really giving me very much in a more conventional sort of question-and-answer way of interacting. So the material that he shot, for example, was so important. In documentary work it’s not just about seeing someone; it’s how they see that can tell you just as much about them.

RS: I think “Between Thought and Expression” is a very apt title for your current retrospective. There's so much memory in your films, and yet also materiality is such a huge part. It feels like a really fundamental thing that you're using so many different means, materially—film, video, spoken word, written word—to get at something that is essentially an ineffable, illusive place of feeling, memory, perception, understanding, etc. Do you see that as a central part of your work?

LS: The title of the current retrospective came from Edo Choi, the curator, and I was pretty excited about it because people often think that films start with a story, and that is not how I work. My films start with ideas. So that was very insightful. It was Edo Choi and Eric Hynes, but I think it’s really got Edo’s fingerprint over the whole retrospective. He chose to feature Same Stream Twice and Maya at 24. So, Maya at 24 is my daughter at 24, but it's also the idea that you’re 24 frames per second. I made a film when Maya was six, when she was 16, then when she was 24, and all three are in the retrospective. So I thought that was at first kind of surprising, but then the audience gets to kind of move through the films as material things, as you said, but also move through her life.

RS: Your family has factored into your films before, and in your new film you had your brothers and sisters so heavily involved. Were they hesitant or onboard?

LS: For many years everybody just called it “Lynne’s Dad film.” They’d say, “When are you going to finish that Dad film?” So, I finished some other projects, even as far back as my film Which Way Is East?, which I finished in ’94. And so even then they'd say, “When are you going to go back to that? You started three years ago.” So I'd continue and I would shoot some more. And I would set up these interviews, kind of a familiar way of making a documentary—you set up a time and a place. But with my dad, I'd asked the same questions every time. And I'd always get the same answers, and I wasn't really going any deeper. I could say that’s part of his generation for men, but maybe that’s not it, maybe it’s that people, certain people, are closed off from going to that place of sort of interiority. So my brothers and sisters became essential in forming a picture of my father. I found that when I would talk to different siblings, yes, they would be kind of protective of dad, but they also wanted to help me build an understanding of who he was.

So around 2017 and ’18, I, when I was aware that I had two sisters I hadn't known about, I would either fly to where they lived or we would take special time when we were having a family gathering. And I think most of us are unaccustomed to being interviewed; it doesn't happen that much in our lives. And I decided that those later interviews would be without a camera. So then you’re not as self-conscious. And so actually I think that sometimes they came to a place where they understand who they were in relation to our father that maybe they hadn't ever expressed before. And so there was an appreciation for that, and it kind of brought us closer.

RS: Did you ever have any personal hesitation moving forward with the film?

LS: I was finishing the film very much in the “me too” era. And I had to contend with that and that I was trying to explore my relationship as a woman to this male presence in my life. But I think there’s another corresponding experience: my brothers and their own search for their masculinity. Your father is a model—it might not be a role model, but it is a model. So you either follow that and you yearn to be that, or you differentiate yourself as a man. And in the last period of time, when I was making the film, I think each of my brothers explored who he wanted to be as a man, both in a loving way to my dad, but also to say “I'm different, and I’m going to conduct myself differently.”

RS: Was Su Freidrich’s Sink or Swim an influence in any way, or a film you considered?

LS: Well, her work has been extremely important to me, and she has spent a lot of time making work about both her mother and her father. And if I'm interpreting the film correctly, I think that her alienation from her father continues and that is also reflected in the fact that you don't see her father in it. So her father comes in kind of like a mythic person, and her film ends up being as much about her, and maybe mine does too. That might be something that I've learned from her. Sink or Swim uses these, let’s call them incidents in a life or a relationship as parables. And I really liked that. Like I used an incident where my father talks about two cars—he says he has two Cadillacs, and he wanted to hide that from his mother. So he just painted them the same color. And so it’s really just an anecdote, but it’s also telling about the way someone moves through their social space. I think that's something I share with her. We take incidents and they kind of blossom or inflate into something more resonant, even for someone watching the film.

RS: Could you talk a little bit about how your feelings might have changed towards your father when the film was being completed or even now that people have been seeing it.

LS: When I was making the film, I took a walk with Alan Berliner, who had made a film about his dad called Nobody’s Business [1997]. And he said, “Our dads left a mark…they left a mark on the world that could be invisible to most but maybe not their children.” And so in some ways I feel that whatever flaws or scars or bad blood that happened as a result of my dad, he also lived this full life. I showed the film to some men of his age who were in a fraternity with him from the University of Florida. And so there was a part of me that felt really protective, or embarrassed, or I thought, “Oh my God, now they're not gonna think he's as perfect as they might have thought he was. They're going to really know.” But instead they said, “I wish my daughter made a film about me, Lynne.”

There might be things that you did that people could call egregious; well it’s still the life you lead. It is your place on the earth. And so in that way I feel like it’s kind of giving my father this different kind of legacy per se. And I think he’s kind of excited. He came to the New York premiere; he was there with his cellphone and he was getting photographed and was pretty excited for the party afterwards.

RS: I wanted to ask you about your commitment to film as a material. I feel that there is something that I get from watching your films, especially images of the year 2017 or 2016 shot on 16mm film—there’s a presence.

LS: Well, I’ll tell you something that will even shock you more. I bought a 16mm Bolex windup camera in 1987. And that's the camera I use. Wow. Can you think of all the cameras and cell phones and computers and laptops that each one of us has had in those intervening years? And I love that. I don't have to worry about batteries. Sometimes I do hand processing, and I really like to go to a local lab in New York. And so it feels like you can just drop it off the way we used to. There's a touching of the material that connects us to painters or ceramicists. I think it's fascinating that people who shoot in 16 now like to show the sprockets—it’s an aesthetic choice.

RS: I think there’s sometimes a misunderstanding about formally engaged films and formally experimental or radical films. There’s a very accepting and humanistic aspect to imperfections and flaws.

LS: Do you know the Japanese expression, wabi-sabi? It's all about that, about being drawn to the flaws of things. If that is your sensibility, then it is exactly the inverse of everything we see on television these days. But interestingly enough, now there are programs on Premiere where you can add scratches. It’s a trick, but it’s also coming full circle; it’s people saying, we’re hungry for the rust and for the path for the passage of time. When I was working with Rebecca, we started to recognize that the decay of the materials or degradation of the footage weren’t flaws, but something that gave it the test of time. Isn’t perfect a little dreary?